Tou Lee stands in the middle of a rice field at Lee’s One Fortune Farm in Marion, North Carolina. He pulls on a glove, runs his hand up the stalk and over the tassel, and shakes individual grains of rice into a bucket.
Tou and his wife Chue Lee planted this field of rice in early spring. Now it’s the end of the growing season, and after months of waiting, it’s finally time to harvest. For the most part, it’s a joyous time. They are eager to dry the rice and bring it to farmers markets, as well as enjoy it with friends and family. But this time of year also brings back memories of their struggle to escape the jungles of Laos and find safety in the United States.
The Lee family is part of the Hmong community in Western North Carolina. For thousands of years, the Hmong people farmed the highlands of Laos in Southeast Asia. They had their own language, oral history, and religion, and many families grew their own rice.
In the late 1960s, when the Vietnam War spread into neighboring Laos, the United States recruited Hmong people to fight against the North Vietnamese. Many men left their villages to become soldiers, and over the course of the war, their land and livestock were destroyed. After Vietnam fell in 1975, they faced persecution from the new government and 200,000 or so Hmong people fled Laos.
Tou Lee was seven years old when he escaped his home county and came to the United States. “I didn’t know the politics of the war, but it didn’t matter. My uncle had to hide me and change my name and put me with a different group with my grandmother. We had to flee in the middle of the night more times that I can count, just to move to another spot that was safe,” he says.
Rice was just out of reach, but not forgotten during this tumultuous time. “We were on the loose for many years into the jungles of Laos. This rice, we didn’t have. My grandmother and I actually tried to raise rice in four or five different locations that I can recall, just enough for us to have. But each time, before the rice is ready, we had to leave.”
Tou’s wife, Chue Lee, has her own story. She remembers what it was like to seek safety with her parents. “The bad, the good, the ugly, and all,” she recalls. “We lived in the jungle for the majority of maybe 10 years roaming the jungle. We finally got to the camp in Thailand in ‘83 and we came to America in ‘84.”
Her husband Tou remembers the shock he felt arriving in the United States as a child. “I was a little kid that didn’t speak a word of English and when I got here. We didn’t know anything about this culture.”
He wasn’t alone—Western North Carolina is now one of the largest Hmong communities in U.S. The climate and mountains are similar to Laos, and the pace of rural life and a return to agriculture appeal to many Hmong families.
Although the landscape was similar, Tou wasn’t prepared for the food he found here. He arrived in early September, the time of year his family would be harvesting rice. But with no land to farm, Tou and his family were more interested in American foods.
“My aunt and uncle gave us some pennies. Every place I found a gumball machine, I went and got some candy,” he says. “That was I was a big surprise and change, but I couldn’t find anybody to buy food from.”
Eventually he found a supermarket with fresh produce, but it was very different from the vegetables he ate in Laos. “There were a lot of grocery stores but none of the food was anything familiar. So my whole thing about taste changed. I had to re-learn what I liked and what I didn’t like,” he says. “I remember that celery was the first vegetable my aunt cooked, and it had the strongest smell to me at the time. I couldn’t muster it. Today I eat it, but celery. Can you imagine? People don’t even think twice about it, but I was somebody that had never had it before.”
Now Tou and his wife Chue sell Asian produce at farmers markets where they encourage customers to try foods that they may have never had before. Tou says customers are eager to try things like water spinach, yam greens, and especially bitter melons. “We have customers that come and buy maybe a dozen or two at a time. Now they’re coming back and bringing friends along for the taste,” he says.
Learn more about Lee’s One Fortune farm and the local markets where you can buy their rice and produce in ASAP’s Local Food Guide www.appalachiangrown.org
Re-run aired October 7, 2019